SELAH — Despite a ban on recreational marijuana operations in unincorporated Yakima County, Mark Henning sells neatly packaged marijuana buds, marijuana-infused cookies, candy and even coffee at The Canyon, a small store just outside Selah.
For years, the county largely ignored him and others operating low-key medical marijuana dispensaries, which sold only to those with prescriptions from doctors.
But all that changed July 1, when a new law took effect that reclassified dispensaries as recreational retailers providing they, like Henning, had obtained a state license.
The state’s action puts Henning and others in direct conflict with the county’s ban, and has county authorities reassessing their position on marijuana altogether.
The regulatory waters are muddied, said Commissioner Mike Leita.
Henning isn’t letting the county’s ban stop him from selling.
“We’re operating legally as far as Washington state and what the voters voted,” he said at his store one recent morning. “We’re more concerned about having the state’s blessing rather than having Yakima County’s blessing.”
Henning isn’t alone. There are 23 operators, mostly growers and processors with active state marijuana licenses throughout unincorporated Yakima County. How many of them previously operated as medicinal providers is unclear.
But the county isn’t rushing to shut anyone down.
On Monday, commissioners plan to meet with the county assessor, prosecuting attorney and sheriff to further discuss the matter before taking any immediate action, Leita said.
“It’s premature to determine how the board of commissioners is going to react,” he said. “We’re in a discovery mode. We’re going to start gaining a greater understanding of our position to determine which way we want to go.”
Why the change?
Difficulty in regulating medical operations led to the change, according to state Liquor and Cannabis Board spokesman Brian Smith in Olympia.
Those who had medical prescriptions to use marijuana could form a collective garden to grow their own for medicinal use. Up to 10 patients could form a garden with a total of 45 plants.
But often, many of those gardens morphed into storefronts that sold to anyone, Smith said.
“Medical marijuana — there was nothing in state law allowing storefronts, but they proliferated,” he said.
These storefronts, largely on the state’s west side, often sold tax-free pot to nonpatients, creating an unfair advantage over recreational retailers, Smith said.
Many of these operations where shut down overnight when the change went into effect. “They were defined as collective gardens, but they were storefronts,” he said. “That totally drove the change.”
Now patients are allowed to form only four-member cooperatives, with each member limited to the number of plants specified in a prescription. Cooperatives are not to exceed a total of 60 plants.
Only pot stores with a medical endorsement from the state Liquor and Cannabis Board are allowed to sell medical marijuana, which can be sold tax-free and in higher doses than what’s sold in the recreational market, Smith said.
Stores must have someone on staff medically certified to work with patients in order to receive an endorsement, he added.
“Really the change is to create a system that would create some certainty for legitimate patients to buy medical marijuana,” Smith said.
“I think the easiest way to look at it is you have to have a license to operate as of July 1. You have to be a retail store; there are no more medical dispensaries.”
Commissioners plan to hold a series of meetings with marijuana producers, processors and retailers, authorities and the public before deciding how to address the issue.
Meanwhile, the county is revising its code to reduce the number of steps and amount of time it takes to enforce action against a code violator.
Most likely, that won’t foster any immediate action against marijuana operations, Leita said.
“If we take action too soon, we could have a liability,” he said. “To take premature action without understanding all the dynamics, without providing due process, would put the county at risk for court battles.”
Commission-ers have said the ban on recreational marijuana was based on the way voters in Yakima County rejected Initiative 502, which legalized marijuana sales statewide.
Yakima County voters in November 2012 rejected the initiative by 57.8 percent.
Henning would like to see the matter go before county voters now.
“We propose that they put it back on the ballot to see if voters want to kick medical marijuana out of the county,” he said.
But before making such a decision, commissioners want to gather more information, Leita said.
“There are a lot of options, but before we determine the options we need to assess the problems,” he said. “And the first step in all that is we listen to all parties.
“Don’t jump to conclusions; don’t presume where this is going to go, because we don’t know.”